Global Perspectives on Human Language:
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      An Evolving Tool of Liberation: South African Journalism  

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Ashleigh Collins
Updated 9-19-2004

During our South African seminar, my classmates and I took in a presentation at the University of Cape Town (UCT). At the close of the talk, one of the UCT students inquired about my South African knowledge, outside of Nelson Mandela facts, prior to my arrival to the country. His question took me off guard, and I found myself frantically searching to supply an adequate answer. Needless to say, my attempts were futile, and I was left without a semblance of information to share. But my ineptness introduced me to the ravenous South African appetite for news. Nineteen million adults listen to the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) radio, and eighteen million watch SABC television. Nineteen daily and ten weekly newspapers are in circulation. Even the Cape Town schoolchildren we encountered on our visits to urban and rural schools possessed enough knowledge of news occurrences to inquire about the specifics of U.S. public events. South Africans seem to possess enormous amount of knowledge about local, national, and international news in contrast to that among Americans. Still, despite South African journalism's positive contributions to the anti-Apartheid struggle, the challenge of media accessibility for all members of the South Africa still remains.

The Repression of Journalism during Apartheid

   British colonialists first imported the concept of free speech into South Africa, but it was an illusionary freedom, allowing "free" exercise only when journalism entrenched the apartheid status quo. E.S. Reddy, former assistant UN secretary general, described the South African free press as a means of:

convinc[ing] Western public opinion that the African National Congress of South Africa (ANC) is terrorist and "communist-dominated," that the fall of the racist minority regime would lead to Soviet domination of South Africa, endangering Western strategic and economic interests, that the racist regime is reformist, that violence is caused by the liberation movement, that sanctions against South Africa would hurt the blacks and retard reform, and so on [1].

Broadcasting was limited to governmental propaganda, and the only privately owned broadcaster M-Net, was prohibited from free expression. While four major groups privately owned newspaper ownership, the government's tentacles extended to control media through restrictive registration and content policies. Registration was required for newspapers published over eleven times a year.   Content was mediated by brandishing the imprisonment of individuals and the forced closure of news organizations violating governmental mores. Anti-apartheid leaders and protest demonstrations were prohibited from being covered by journalists, and any news organizations violating these orders were closed or imprisoned.

Still some anti-Apartheid journalism surfaced through journalists taking advantage of any opportunity to publicize the inhumanity of apartheid. Community newspapers, such as the Guardian , introduced a movement of alternative journalism that became especially popular during the 1940s. But like the anti-governmental journalism before it, the Guardian was banned in 1952. It was soon replaced by the Advance , which would later be substituted by New Age , Clarion Call , and finally, the Spark . However, by 1963, coverage of the anti-Apartheid movement ceased all together, and journalists were detained, prohibited from writing, or forced into exile. Among the journalists imprisoned was New Age editor Ruth First, who received solitary confinement for 117 days. Internationally renowned photojournalist Peter Magubane was arrested numerous times and held in solitary confinement for a total of 600 days.

But even with the extensive repression, journalists managed to produce journalism that reached the national and international community. Black journalists became a resource during the Soweto Massacre of June 16, 1976, where only Black Africans were allowed free access to the townships. But no sooner had news of the massacre been published were Black South African journalists detained, among them the entire Union of Black Journalists. In spite of the repeated banning and journalist detentions, news of peaceful anti-Apartheid demonstrations pummeled by governmental arms received enough coverage to produce an international outrage. It was this outrage that strengthened the movement, which would later topple the Apartheid regime [1] .

The Influence of Foreign Investment in Post-Apartheid South Africa

While Apartheid ended in 1994, its effects within journalism still remain. The concentration of news ownership among both foreign and South African Whites has resulted in a lack of diverse representation within news. With money and power inextricably linked, individuals and media companies with insufficient resources are quickly consumed by economic powerhouses. Imvo Zabantsundu (African Opinion) became the first newspaper written, managed, and owned by Black South Africans. But it, along with most other Black-owned publications, lacked sufficient capital, equipment, skilled workers, as well as a reliable journalism network. Consequently, the English-speaking Argus Printing Company bought the newspaper. But in 1994, Irish foreign investor Tony O'Reilly bought 35% of Argus, South Africa's largest independent newspaper corporation. Sixty-two percent of the Mail & Guardian was purchased the United Kingdom-based Guardian in 1998. By 1999, O'Reilly bought all of Argus Printing Co. and changed the company's name to Argus Newspaper Limited [2]. In addition to foreign investment, international news feeds from CNN, Reuters, and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) have become regular additives to South African broadcasts and publications [3].

Consistent with the language of foreign investors and international news feeds, much of South African journalism is conducted in the English language. Its presence in the majority of South African broadcasts and publications publicly prioritizes the English language above the ten other South African official languages. Granted, English has emerged as the international language of trade, and conducting South African journalism in English enables media executives to circumvent disputes over the prioritization of particular indigenous languages, which are typically tied to a specific ethnic group, over another. However, the instatement of English as the language endorsed by South African media challenges the significance of identifying ten other national languages. In addition, the disappearance of these indigenous languages from South African journalism contributes to their extinction, and since language serves an intricate role in ethnic identity, it also marginalizes the cultures associated with each indigenous language.

Efforts to Establish Equal Racial Representation in News

Strides have been made to create equity among racial representation in the news through the passing of several governmental acts as well as the updated SABC mission statement. The Broadcasting Act of 1999 calls on broadcasters to include previously disadvantaged groups and multilingual diversity in their broadcasts [4]. In 2000, the Independent Broadcasting Authority Act unified telecommunications and broadcast, promoted unbiased broadcasts, nongovernmental interference, and mandated the promotion of telecommunication and broadcast ownership among historically disadvantaged groups [5] . The SABC mission identified the incorporation of "a plurality of views and variety of news, information, and analysis" among its goals [6]. While the intention of these governmental acts and the SABC mission appear to be a positive one, equal racial representation and free speech have yet to be achieved within South Africa. Media ownership still rests within the hands of White, English-speaking, and elite males, who possess Western ideologies. None of these characteristics comprise the majority of the South African population. As a result, it is difficult, if not impossible, for individuals different from the societal majority to fairly and accurately represent the diversity of views comprising South Africa. Six out of every ten Black South Africans rarely or never read newspapers [7], and it is arguably a result of post-Apartheid journalism that is neither responsive nor representative of them.

Reflections on Journalistic Flaws and their Improvement

While the South African population thirsts for news, the lack of representative diversity threatens to discourage the continued reading, watching, and listening of the news. Much of the journalistic shortcomings arise from a new class of journalists that are inexperienced. Recruited by lucrative government and corporate jobs, both in the private sector, seasoned journalists have left the journalism profession and taken their "institutional memory" along with them [8] . Thus, in order to improve representative diversity within media, it is important to improve journalists' salary, so the profession is more competitive with government and corporate jobs. Moreover, it is necessary to recruit communication savvy college graduates to the profession. Organizations, like the U.S. National Black Journalist Association, could be tailored to South Africa and implemented. Through scholarship opportunities, workshops, and networks, college students will be encouraged to seriously consider a journalistic career and improve their journalistic skills. Finally, a business-oriented program to supplement the historically disadvantaged of South Africa would be beneficial in buttressing independent Black South African media ownership ventures. In the meantime, South African journalism will continue to reflect the mediation a diverse population working to produce a seamless unification of cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and racial respect of all South Africans.



[1] Reddy, E.S. "Media & the Southern Africa Struggle," March 1988.

[2] Berger, Guy. "Towards an Analysis of the South African Media and Transformation, 1994-1999."

[3] Research from Media Monitoring Project, "Black Journalists in South Africa are Treading New Paths," WACC.

[4] Government Gazette , 4 February 2003, pg 2.



[7] Berger, Guy.

[8] Frazier, Herb. Knightline International , Winter 2002.